Film: Doh! How Homer saved Walt

Wit, sophistication, irony - the cartoon world of `Antz' has it all. Who do we have to thank? By Leslie Felperin
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THE SHIFT has been so gradual and seismic, no one has really noticed it taking place. Over the Nineties, animation has stopped being eye-candy for kids and geeks and become mainstream entertainment. It appeals to gay, straight and bi-people alike (perhaps because of their at first naive and now rather knowing campness, Disney films in particular have a huge gay following). In a world where niche marketing and narrowcasting are increasingly dominant, cartoons are becoming one of the last forms of entertainment that have, as their certification suggests, universal appeal.

Let's leave aside for a moment the success of animated sitcoms such as The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead and South Park and look at what's happening just in feature films. Mulan - the latest animated feature from Disney with its endearing story of plucky, cross-dressing Chinese lady-soldier and co-starring the wise-cracking voice of Eddie Murphy - was released a few weeks ago. And this week, Antz - entirely computer-generated, set in an ant colony and starring the vocal talents of Woody Allen and Sharon Stone - is released. Clearly the timing of both films - in and around the half-term break - suggests that these films' distributors see families with children as a huge target. And yet each film is sprinkled with jokes and nods and winks to adult and adolescent viewers.

As often as not, these in-jokes revolve around references to other movies the kids are hardly likely to have yet seen in their short little lives. In Mulan, Murphy's Mushu the dragon adopts a spread-wing pose on the point of attacking a baddie and, when asked who he is, quotes Batman's "I'm your worst nightmare". Meanwhile Antz pays visual homage to Metropolis with its images of worker ants toiling in their individuality-crushing mini-opolis. Animation buffs will also notice Antz's indebtedness to the Fleischer brothers' Mr Bug Goes to Town (1941) whose plot rests on an endangered insect colony based in New York. The Fleischers were the svengalis behind Betty Boop's career and the first animators of Popeye; New York- based and the sons of immigrants, their more urban, jazzy and adult-oriented cartoons may be familiar to fans of The Old Grey Whistle Test which often used old Fleischer shorts to illustrate songs without pop videos.

Animation is the film industry's Cinderella, a riches-to-rags-to-riches story. Once upon a time, cartoons were as popular at the cinema as live- action films, and seen as suitable entertainment for the whole audience. At the height of his fame, Felix the Cat was as internationally recognisable a superstar as Charlie Chaplin (the two even "appeared" together in a Felix cartoon). But gradually cartoon characters were upstaged by real actors and over the Twenties and Thirties, animation became a kind of cinematic hors d'oeuvres, a savoury snack of comedy before the dramatic main course.

When Walt Disney announced that he was going to make the first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, everyone scoffed, saying that no one would want to watch a 90-minute cartoon, but of course it was a huge financial success. The Mouse's empire grew, but it was primarily founded on appealing to the child audience.

When the cartoon short was killed off during the Sixties, only Ralph Bakshi kept heroically plugging away at making animation for an adult audience with films like the X-rated Fritz the Cat and (God have mercy on his soul) Lord of the Rings.

More than anything else, it was probably The Simpsons which changed everything, bringing the sophisticated wit back into animation. By the time The Simpsons launched, Disney was getting back on its feet in the feature-making department, but the television series could be credited as an influence on the decision to make Disney's features funnier, faster paced, carefully contrived to appeal to a wider demographic. Aladdin was the first to mark this shift, capable of pulling in even adults sans children for Robin Williams's frenetic voicing of the genie. Even notoriously finicky teenagers, who wouldn't have been caught dead going to see a Disney cartoon film a decade before, started going to see the company's features.

Mulan has been less successful in pulling such an older youth crowd; Antz has better prospects for cross-over appeal with its starrier cast and sharper script. But look at the larger picture - just look at the mountains of South Park merchandising in every record shop - and you'll see that animation in general has achieved a popularity it once seemed impossible it would ever recover.

`Antz' is released on 6 November